Protective Mechanism of the Four: Hiding Out in My Imagination & Intensity

The Type Four protects himself and his shame-filled heart (“I’m a nobody…I have no significance”) by withdrawing into his imagination, avoiding real contact with life which he anticipates will cause him more shame. He creates an ‘imaginary’ character to live through —a Fantasy Self—and fantasizes himself doing incredible creative works or failing miserably, unable to show up for his creative dreams. If the Four allows you get close to him, he risks the possibility that you might say or do something that touches his feelings of deficiency and shame. Floating in the depths of his psychic waters is a ghostly tormentor who continually hisses to him, “You are insignificant and unimportant…you are insignificant and unimportant…lie low or you will be seen.”                                                                                                                                                His intuitive radar is hotwired to protecting this sensitive and vulnerable soul-wound. It takes little to brush the hyper-sensitive shame button of his soul. When he does attempt contact with others it is often through his emotional confessions regarding his painful past. Although his emotional honesty is a tremendous gift, used too often he makes it very difficult for others to hold the compassionate space needed to communicate with him with any consistency.

He is mired in a psychological struggle: safely distancing himself from you in his imagination while yearning to be with you, worried you will embarrass and shame him yet hungry in his heart for real emotional connection.  He often chooses retreat. Better that than revealing his turbulent heart or his wish for connection. He abandons himself and his gifts, imprisoning himself in the role of the unwanted outsider. Ultimately enraged with this position, he will respond with emotional reactivity and intensity to stimulate connection or intimacy with others.

In a treatment setting this will often be expressed as anger, outrage and soul-bending discontent with staff and other clients who are not being as emotionally deep, honest and ‘emotionally intense’ as his is. If people aren’t talking about their deepest, darkest feelings (which the Four assumes he knows and can sense in others—on good days he can!) then they aren’t being real. Then comes the complaint and protective strategy of the unhealthy Four: These people can’t truly help him because they don’t know his emotional needs. They aren’t able, as he is, to go to the depths of emotional truth. Hiding behind the gift of his emotional honesty, he judges and dismisses them as emotional incompetents. In a state of rageful disdain he withdraws from them, feeling once again that he is the outsider, the only one who is emotionally aware.

The Four Challenge to Others

The Four can vacillate between being emotionally deep and emotionally reactive, causing everyone to walk on eggshells around him. His challenge to you is to remain at peace, steady, unaffected, while he storms about. Helping him to disidentify from the intensity of his emotional reactivity by seeing how he unwittingly inflates certain negative feelings is a tremendous gift you can offer him.

The Four’s blind-spot (and self-protection habit)

I know what emotional truth is and everyone else here in this treatment center (or AA, NA, or the world) is shallow and fake.” He mistakenly thinks that he is the “deep” one. It’s a compelling delusion and self-protection mechanism and can trick him into thinking people have disappointed and let him down. He thinks, “See, it happened again. No one can understand me.” In demanding that others attune to him in just the right way, he pushes them away with his judgmental insensitivity while asserting that he is simply being honest and true to his feelings. He reasons, “How can people who don’t have the courage to walk into the swamps of their personal suffering, like myself, help me? I’m justified in feeling like a victim of emotionally inept people and refusing their help. It’s not help that is suited to my special depth.” Mistaking his brand of emotional experience as the right one, everyone else is rejected or avoided, i.e., treated as if they were nobody, as though insignificant, the very feelings he wishes to avoid.                                                                                                                        Unwittingly, the Four becomes entranced by this perspective: “What I’m looking for is deep and profound, intimate and beautiful. And…I’m too deep and too emotionally intense, and ‘real’ for you.” He mistakenly confuses honesty, depth and intimacy with spilling and retelling the contents of his shame, his childhood suffering, his disappointment with his parents, his rage at being ripped off and misunderstood by life, or through his emotional outbursts. Little does he realize that this is a distortion of intimacy and emotional honesty, a heavy veil that obscures the real depth and significance he seeks, the passionate creative impulse he wishes to express, and the real intimacy his soul longs for.

Core Wound and Relapse Pattern of the Four Throughout Recovery

When the addicted Four enters recovery and begins the journey of healing, the driving engine of his addiction are his core fears of feeling significant—a nobody—and of being emotionally shallow, dull, ordinary, and indistinguishable (these fears will be the cornerstone of his inner work throughout his recovery). In early recovery these feelings will feel justified because his life is in ruins. But at predictable intervals, whether he has been clean and sober six weeks or sixteen years, from his depths will arise the feeling that he is utterly insignificant, a nobody. In the midst of his greatest successes these feelings will have the uncanny capability of erasing all self-confidence. Thomas describes the feeling of insignificance this way:

“When I entered recovery the feeling of shame and insignificance clung to me like a vampire. Walking down the street I felt that everyone could see my shameful life and could see thru me into the depths of all my mistakes and misery. I felt utterly naked. I’d walk into an AA meeting and feel overwhelmed with self-doubt and shame, sure that everyone in the room could see my flaws. I reacted by deciding they were shallow, uncreative fools, and not worthy of my time. But this was a protection for my broken heart, and the sorrow and shame I felt at failing so badly in my life, at being such an outcast. This turned to envy where I experienced bone-chilling jealousy of everyone. I’d look at another recovering man and it would appear that he had a life going on, that he was comfortable with himself. God I wanted that. Then I’d hate myself and him for having the feelings. It was horrid. It sent me out onto the streets many times. Today, eight years clean and sober, these same feelings recycle at deeper levels when I embark on new path of growth or expansion. If I don’t stay alert I can slip back into withdrawal from life in order to protect myself from shame (and from growth), or take on new addictions, watching too much TV, over-eating, engaging in too much sensuality, etc., and this will and has led me back to my addiction. The feeling of being insignificant is a huge trigger for me. It’s extremely painful, and one I’m ashamed of it and often keep it to myself. I have to work to let people in and not retreat.”

The emotional habit of envy is insidious. The Four, feeling deeply flawed, looks over at his neighbor and caught in his mental habit of fantasizing, imagines that his neighbor has a comfortable and happy life, doing ordinary and socially accepted things that others do, apparently having no cares in the world. Envy rips through him. Truth is, the Four doesn’t really know what his neighbor is experiencing on the inside, but he imagines he does. He thinks, “He’s happy and I’m not. I hate him for this, and I hate me for not having it. And I hate myself for being envious.” Suffering with envy, the Four then takes a sharp turn and thinks, “Wait a second; the happiness he has is shallow and dull. I never want to be content with such ordinary, mundane pleasures. Forget that. I’ll go back to my lonely apartment and write sad poetry, ponder the real horrors of suffering in the world, and be miserable. At least I’m real!” Back and forth he swings between these two poles. Thomas explains it this way:

“I struggle with envy and the feeling of being no one of significance. I think this is what people see when they look at me. It’s still hard for me today even though I’m eight years sober. I just don’t drink or drug over it. When I was first in recovery I thought that everyone else had it together and that I was the only who really suffered. I imagined I was the weirdest outsider in the room with a history no one could ever understand. I didn’t fit anywhere and yet a part of me liked not fitting in, liked being the one who was different and original, even though it often made me feel lonely and left out. I was angry that I’d been robbed of my childhood, that I’d gone through so much abuse and trauma. In my rage I felt like I deserved to have what I wanted simply because I’d been gypped and others hadn’t. Due to feeling so insignificant I imagined myself one day being seen as someone great and famous, a rock star, and found it very difficult to enter real life where everyone struggled with jobs, relationships, money, kids. It was as though doing everyday life things was beneath me, and demeaning to me. Imagining myself as someone great took the edge off my low self-esteem. I’d get really demanding when I was down, expecting everyone to treat like a diamond in the rough, and still have to notice these unhealthy patterns today in sobriety. They run very deep. They are still a big source of my suffering, and over time I am gradually changing. When I’m triggered all my defenses turn on, and I can feel like that guy who walked through the doors of recovery eight years ago, filled with self-doubt and insignificance. The difference is I see it, and don’t believe it. I just know I’ve been triggered and I share it out loud with another trusted person to neutralize its hypnotic affect.”


Deep Wound/Relapse Pattern of the Four: Core Fearsof having no identity or personal significance, of being utterly indistinguishable, ordinary and emotionally shallow.

Deep WishTo know himself, his true significance and creative purpose.

Sees himselfas someone who is emotionally sensitive, deep and honest, intuitive, passionate, creative, gentle, able to articulate feelings. At Level 4 and below he falls prey to his

Emotional Habit of Envy in which he feels that others are happy and have a niche and he doesn’t. Feels ripped off—he didn’t get the necessary instructions for living a good life. Add to this the

Mental Habit of Fantasizing in which he retreats to his imagination to create emotional intensity, amplifying his envy by comparing his life to others. Driven by an

Inner Critic Message: “You’re lovable and acceptable if you are unique, different and emotionally deep…but truth is, you’re insignificant.”


The mental habit of the Four shows up in several other ways. When the Four’s shame gets triggered, be it by someone’s words or actions, he falls prey to replaying the “shame” scene continuously in his imagination. He gets stuck to the scene and the feelings, re-imagining the scene over and over again, like a replaying film clip rather than openly discussing the matter with a confidant.


“The Trap of Envy: Envy is based on the feeling that something fundamental is missing. Envy leads Fours to feel that others possess qualities that they lack. Fours long for what is absent but often fail to notice the many blessings in their lives.” (Wisdom of the Enneagram, p. 22)


In a different manner, the Four imagines a Fantasy Self that he wishes to be—an idealized version of himself—and then mercilessly beats himself up for not attaining it as he compares himself to what he imagines he should be—and falls short (this is another form of envy). He might imagine himself to be a great painter, but becomes so lost in his imagination and disconnected from reality (at Level 5, 6, & 7) that he fails to make the necessary efforts (the ordinary, disciplined efforts) needed to actually get good at painting, and then hates himself for not living up to his Fantasy Self. Or, under sway of his imagination he imagines himself quickly mastering his longed for creative capacity, and is enraged at himself for how slow the creative process takes, and gives up.                                                                                                                                     Fantasizing can reveal itself through the Four’s dream that if he finds the right partner, the Soul Mate, that his life of suffering will be over. She will love him, support him, see his genius, be the mom and dad he always needed, and a great lover too. His fantasizing makes it extremely difficult to deal with a flesh and blood, imperfect partner who continually fails at fulfilling his infatuated dream. His dream of the idealized partner becomes an extraordinary demand that his partner cannot succeed at. Again, like his habit of envy, he compares what he has, the real partner, with the one he has fantasized about—the soul mate—and is enraged that his partner has fallen short. The habit of idealizing his partner through his imagination and then devaluing his partner, creates terrible suffering and chaos for the Four who truly wants a significant relationship.                                                                                                                                      The mechanism of the Inner Critic adds fuel to the flames of this mechanism. The Inner Critic’s message is “You are good or okay if you emotionally honest and follow the dictates of your feelings.” For the recovering Four this translates into being true to whatever feeling arises on their emotional radar. If suddenly his ‘feeling’ towards his work, his partner, or his friends has changed, and reality isn’t matching his fantasy expectation, then being be true to himself can mean finding something or someone that does. Lost in following and tracking his current feelings, he becomes unable to follow any given path to fruition. This sets the Four up for being rudderless, groundless, and unable to stabilize a sense of self, something he yearns for desperately. In the realm of relationship, the Four, so taken by this Inner Critic message, can feel it necessary to report every passing emotion to his partner, in the name of ‘emotional honesty.’ If on a given day, he feels attracted to someone else, and suspects she might be his soul mate, or is angry that he’s not feeling attracted to his partner, or that the relationship isn’t feeding his need for emotional intensity, he might say, “Mary, I’m having these attractions for Louise. And…I’m not feeling very attracted to you.” He’s dropped a small nuclear bomb into the room, in the name of honesty, that now has undone his partner’s confidence and sense of safety. Learning to know when to share his emotions and when to find another man in recovery to share them with, is essential for developing a long term relationship, and not bringing unnecessary suffering to his partner. But for some Fours this is a lesson that is hard earned.


Michael Naylor, M.Ed, CCPC, LADC, CCS, is a faculty member of the Enneagram Institute, a Certified Professional Coach, an Authorized Riso-Hudson Enneagram Teacher, and IEA accredited teacher, and a Licensed Addictions Therapist. He teaches in the U.S.A and coaches internationally.